Rise of the Guardians turns out to be one of the year’s pleasanter surprises — and comes in a respectable third (after Frankenweenie and Paranorman) on my list of 2012 animated films. Frankly, the trailer didn’t do that much for me and I was not exactly looking forward to the film, but it’s actually a lot better than the trailer — constantly entertaining, cleverly written, enthusiastically played and with a distinct and very appealing look. Oh, it doesn’t break a lot of new ground and the story is pretty basic, but it does what it sets out to do with good humor. Plus, its creation of a mythology of its own within the confines of existing myths — Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (who doesn’t speak), Jack Frost (Chris Pine) — is both clever and effective. However, what is perhaps the biggest selling point is that even though the Guardians of Childhood (to give them their full name) are essentially the Avengers in storybook clothing, the film is almost entirely devoid of pop culture snark.
The story is simple enough. Long-banished Pitch Black (Jude Law doing a silky Boris Karloff-like villain), the bringer of nightmares, has returned to the world and plans on spreading darkness and disbelief. It is, of course, up to the Guardians (on orders from the moon, who seems to silently be in charge of everything) to thwart his plans, but to do so, they have to recruit Jack Frost to their number. Not only does Jack have a bad attitude (born out of 400 years of solitude because no one can see him) and want nothing to do with this, but the Easter Bunny has a grudge against him over a surprise freeze one Easter. Nonetheless, he ends up helping them — while remaining outside their circle. This turns out to be a good thing because he has an understanding of children that the others have been too busy to remember.
Nothing all that unexpected happens, but the characterizations, the design and the animation make it something a little special. While Hugh Jackman’s ill-tempered Crocodile Dundeeish Easter Bunny is occasionally a little much, he mostly gets by on a certain charm. And a Russian accented Santa (who uses epithets like “Shostakovich” and “Rimsky-Korsakov”) who employs Yeti labor (while allowing the inept elves to think they’re doing something) is a pretty delightful touch. All the characters are nicely defined, but perhaps the best one is the silent Sandman — or maybe it’s just because his silence makes a nice counterpoint and he has the coolest powers. One thing — and if you’re a parent maybe the most important one — is that it sure played well to the kids in my audience. One little boy’s fist even went up in triumph when Jack Frost got his powers back at one point. Now, that’s a kids movie. Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande